There’s something about being a male, there’s something about being white, there’s something about being educated, and there’s something about being a celebrity (even if in a relatively small pool). These are characteristics that lend themselves to needing to be the center of attention – to needing all other stories to be about us. About me.
I see this most often in comments on Facebook and Twitter, obviously. This week it came in several forms, but one standout was a white guy who said he was aware of the “severity” of racism, but that it wasn’t a problem that affected his community and ergo is not relevant to him. As with many white people, he believes that racism is an individual problem and that he -somehow as the person not affected by White Supremacist racism – can speak on behalf of everyone within his circles who is affected by racism. As a self-centering person, the realities, experiences, tribulations and lives of the marginalized are his to consume and storify to his advantage. He tells a whiter story because he believes it is his to tell.
I say this as I share many of these traits of social centering. I know how hard it is to not interject myself in the middle of other people’s stories – those of People of Color, of women, of LGBQ, of transpeople, people with disabilities, those with interlocking identities. To put myself as the important person, the hero, the rescuer is to deny agency to the oppressed who I seek to assist. It is to re-center Whiteness. It is White Supremacy.
Politics by its very nature focuses on instant numbers and opinions. But policy effects – the work of politics and what politicians should be evaluated on – aren’t instant and not easily measured. Negative emotions are, however. So political operatives rely on outrage rather than the actual effects that policies and procedures have for the best bang for their buck. Progressive and Conservative spaces operate largely on Outrage-o-Meters and the tool of clickbait. Progressive websites offer little in the way of progressive, sustainable thought to end wars and bring about a more just and equitable society but, like the conservatives they model their pages and networks on, largely operate as reactionary outrage generators for political parties. This is what happens when they practice a model that privileges Whiteness, Masculinity, and Capitalism.
So we are concerned about fraternities using the N word because to White consciousness in the 21st Century, that’s beyond the pale. And while use of the N-word itself by non-black people is harmful, we ignore the threats that these bros made against black men who would dare to transgress their purified whiteness by trying to join their social group. We fail to make the connection to historic lynching and current practices of police brutality, incarceration, economic segregation, online threats – any black person who would dare transgress whiteness is put in place by the threats and actions of violence. Since fraternities usually signify social acceptance among the elite, networking connections, and special privileges, we are talking about not just a word signifying genocide and control, but a pledge and a threat of social control, purposeful poverty, racial segregation, murder.
The pledge itself is violence.
The chant isn’t just bad because it has bad words in it that offend the sensibilities of enlightened White people. It’s bad because it causes harm.
By centering on “offense”, white people focus on what can easily be dismissed. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, abusers and the powerful use the language of offense to bring attention and sympathy back to them. The Oklahoma fraternity was offended that they were kicked out of campus. That is to be expected. Most white people are offended when they are hinted at or suggested of having racist tendencies.
Offense becomes a shield and a deflection from any analysis of the damage that is being caused. To focus on our own outrage concerning issues that do not directly involve us is to consume those whom it does affect, is to recenter ourselves as White people, as “enlightened” people, as men. Is to support Heteropatriarchy, White Supremacy, Ableism as the norms and the standards.
Rather, we need to trust and listen to those first affected, those directly oppressed. We need to involve ourselves in a praxis that centers their own struggles, their own work, their own creativity, their own genius, their own endeavors in the fields that affect them. Indigenous Americans have been fighting for their own cultural and bodily survival since 1492. Black Americans have borne the intellectual, ancestral and bodily struggle against anti-black violence for four hundred years. Women have been surviving and struggling against patriarchy since men decided that upper body strength means they should be in charge.
The oppressed have experiential and intellectual wisdom flowing through their blood. Not prioritizing and listening to them is to assume that White men know best and that the oppressed are ignorant, unthinking, too emotional. How odd, then, that our entire action relies on the fickle emotion of outrage, rather than a vigorous body of work put through by people of color and other oppressed peoples?